On the Town June 29, 2016
On the Town is little more than a Technicolor stacking of peppy fever dreams, but it’s good at being escapist and is even better at convincing us that its sheer unreality is reality, through charm alone. One of the greatest musicals ever made, it stars Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin as Gabey, Chip, and Ozzie, a trio of sailors on shore leave for a short twenty-four hours in New York, New York. Wanting to see as many sights as they can before reporting back to duty, a fleeting, perhaps even eventually long-lasting, romance is the only thing that could make their all too brief vacation of sorts really worth something.
For all three to get gorgeous girls and get their respective fantasies worth of cultural consumption only leads to barely-there practicality — cinematic inevitability is more like it — but because the film’s songs, dances, and scrumptious assemblage of dialogue (adapted from stage to screen by Betty Comden and Adolph Green) are more important than any plot line could ever be, and because directors Kelly and Stanley Donen ensure that the film is knowingly light instead of merely opportunistic, On the Town is colorful diversion that manages to refrain from obvious manipulation.
Or, at least, the movie is adept at keeping its manipulations subtle. Gabey, Chip, and Ozzie, despite personalities and looks more goofy than romantically magnetic, pick up three girls in no time. Gabey takes interest in Ivy (Vera-Ellen), whom he notices in an ad proudly displayed on the subway (which promptly causes the gang to desperately [and somehow] find her). Chip immediately finds mutual affection with Hildy (Betty Garrett), a brassy cab driver, and Ozzie hooks up with Claire (Ann Miller), an anthropologist with a heart of gold.
On the Town delightfully covers their misadventures around the city, a favorite coming in the form of a late-in-the-film car chase in which Hildy hardly even breaks a sweat throughout her white knuckle madness. The soundtrack that comes along with the screwball antics, of course, is nothing less than sensational: the legendary introductory number, “New York, New York,” is an instantaneously unforgettable anthem, and energetic showcases like the titular “On the Town” sequence and the Ann Miller headed, comedically tinged “Prehistoric Man,” are fine exemplifications of the film’s dashing relationship between comedy, song, and star power. The “A Day in New York” succession and the Vera-Ellen starring “Miss Turnstiles Ballet” are exceptionally placed dance spectaculars that boast the athleticism of the movie’s leading actors.
But I can’t scrutinize On the Town too closely — it’s cheery (though sneakily artistically extraordinary) entertainment meant to be experienced, not talked about with punishing lengthiness. Seeing (and hearing) is believing, and On the Town looks and sounds terrific enough to solidify it as one of the movie musical’s finest achievements. A-